Pain, and grief and heartsickness can be so lonely and isolating. The rollercoaster of emotions settle down, but there are still days when the pain, the memories of what has been lost feels like a harsh punch in the chest. Who can I talk to? Who can I call? To whom can I describe this almost unbearable sensation? It’s nothing new. It’s more of the same. It makes me weary and I feel like a broken record repeating these tiresome things to those in my inner circle. I’m sick of myself, I think, so how can they not be sick of me too?
Writing and reading poetry are what I end up retreating into when the loneliness and isolation set in. I like to think that all of the books of poetry I have voraciously consumed in the last few years are paying off in the form of solace. I share here two recent favorites that have helped me in the hopes that they might be comforting to anyone suffering in any way—there seems to be an abundance of pain everywhere one looks nowadays.
Cuban poet Dulce Maria Loynaz’s collection Absolute Solitude, beautifully translated by James O’Connor and published by Archipelago Books, is full of memorable lines that are worthy of writing in my notebooks and revisiting for those tough days. Here she envisions grief as a wolf to which she falls prey:
There was a lull in the pain. I fled from it as if I were fleeing a wolf
suddenly taken with sleep.
But when it wakes, it will pick up my scent and follow my trail.
I know this. And it doesn’t matter where I hide, it will know how
to find me, and when it does, it will pounce on a body too weary to
Why must I be the preyed upon? Why does its mouth water every
time it spots me?
I have no blood to slake its savage thirst and I carry nothing in my
saddlebags but the echoes of dreams grown cold.
Where did I lose my way? I can’t remember.
What flowers did I step on pretending I didn’t see them?
Before me the great jungle grows dense.
And from Kathryn Smith’s Collection Self-Portrait with Cephalopod published by Milkweed Editions a poem that envisions the possibility of being whole again after tragedy. “A Permeable Membrane in the Mutable Cosmos”:
Tell me again of the lepers who learn
to shed their disastrous skin
by eating the meat of vipers: something
transmutable in the flesh. The ancients
spent lifetimes considering
the resurrection of irretrievable
wolf-devoured flank, eyes
of martyrs pecked clean in the village square,
Tell me again
about the new heaven and the new earth,
when the bear returns an unblemished arm
to its faithful socket, when mountains
open their mouths to receive
conduits and I-beams and engagement diamonds
and the fish ladders the rivers will give up
with their dams when the earth
is made new.
Tell me the formula
for feeling whole again
after tragedy. The equation for how much time
I needed after saying no
before I’d tell you yes.
Tell me I’ll never be alone, even when I want
to be alone.
I normally compose a year-end post discussing the books I’ve read and how my reading, writing and thinking about literature progresses and shifts over the course of time. I contemplate my ever- evolving literary choices in light of what George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.”
But this year I’ve read fewer books then ever and a personal tragedy has overshadowed every aspect of my life. It seems much more fitting to write a post about what I’ve learned about myself—how my perceptions and views of the life, love, happiness and the people around me, have shifted over the course of the past 6 months. Every day I feel like I struggle to do what Steiner describes in that last sentence: put my shaken house in its new order.
I was riding home with a good friend today and we were having a discussion that comes up often between us—attempting to look for the positive that comes out of a tragedy. But there is no silver lining, so to speak, to my story or my daughter’s—at least not yet anyway. A husband, a father, a teacher being tragically killed while doing what he loves most. Where is the sense, the positive spin to that? It’s nearly impossible to find something, anything. But this struggle and this pain have taught me many valuable lessons most of which are admittedly cliche or mundane. But I share them nevertheless for those who look at me with sympathy, pity, and yes, even horror, because life is so damn unfair and this could happen to any one of us.
In the days and weeks immediately after my husband’s death I learned practical things which I believe helped me to keep moving forward and keep my mind from sinking into an abyss of despair. How to plan a funeral, how to get a body home across state lines, how to deal with coroners and autopsies and police reports, how to hire a lawyer, are just a few of these tasks that carried me on day after day after day. And then began the numerous household tasks that occupied me—and still do—how to run the generator, how to deal with the tank for the well, how to figure out what’s wrong with my leaky sink, etc. I have had help and lots of offers of help, but in the end all of these things are my responsibility and their success or failure comes down to how I handle them. Every time something else breaks or stops working I keep reminding myself that it’s another learning experience and that the number of things to quit on me around the house are finite—eventually everything will be replaced at this rate!
I’ve also learned that having even just a little bit of a sense of humor every day is a lifeline.
I’ve learned, and thought a lot about, what kind of a single parent I want to be. Raising our teenage daughter by myself is the scariest part of life nowadays. I want her to see me as an example of strength and perseverance despite suffering; I want her to think that I have been a good provider for her and given her a warm, nurturing and comfortable home. And, most importantly, I want her to know she is cared for and safe and loved. I constantly think about what she will remember from this period of time and I plan my actions sensitively and carefully with this in mind.
I’ve learned that, quite surprisingly, I am a dog person after all. We adopted a golden retriever puppy and I love that big, goofy dog—and her best dog friend Quantum—with all my heart.
I’ve learned that letting go, and even forgetting, is okay. Some days the pain of what I’ve lost is still unbearable, but new memories, new connections, new surroundings are not bad things. At first I felt guilty about connecting with an old friend and making a new one—two people, in particular, that happened to enter my life as a result of specific choices I made after this tragedy. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think that in life we are either moving forward or backward and we have a choice about which direction we are going in every day. Letting go of a life that no longer exists is both sad and hopeful. As a friend wrote to me recently, “…You have suffered greatly and yet are transcending suffering. That is the greatest and most terrible lesson of life—that we suffer and yet also can, must, and do transcend suffering.”
I’ve learned that the book community and literary Twitter are some of the best and kindest people I know from around the world. Even though I haven’t met many of them in person they have sent me, and continue to send me, gifts, notes, well-wishes and love. I’ve realized there are a few, in particular, that I’d like to meet in person as soon as it is possible.
I’ve learned that everyone handles grief and suffering in such different ways. At first I was surprised at some of the friends, colleagues and former acquaintances that didn’t reach out or say anything to me. But those looks of sympathy and horror that I do get have taught me that sometimes there just are no words.
I’ve learned that I am as strong as, or stronger than, I thought. In the beginning it was a struggle just to get out of bed, sit on the deck and stare at the sky. I still catch myself staring at the sky, but my days have slowly filled with new, wonderful people and activities and ideas and endless possibilities. I was having a conversation with my daughter the other day about what we’ve both learned through this experience. She mentioned that she was afraid she would become a different person—dark, depressed, angry, bitter. But she learned that she is much stronger than she thought as well. We both agree that anger is a wasted emotion and that we are determined to get through this together and are, at heart and soul, strong people, committed to finding gratitude and happiness despite a horrible situation.
I’ve learned that, regardless of a lack of concentration for my usual, epic reading projects, poetry continues to be soothing and thought-provoking and mind-bending in brilliant ways.
And finally, I’ve learned that when all is said and done, nothing else matters in this life but love. Neither possessions nor careers nor broken appliances nor money nor anything else matters. For a while I was haunted by all the questions I would really like to ask Alan: Why do you have so many tarps/tents/knives? What did you think was wrong with the furnace and why did you keep working on it? How did you keep track of so many notebooks? But then I realized that the love expressed between us in our last text messages to each other were simple, and said it all—that was everything we needed.
If anyone learns anything from me it should be this: don’t be afraid to express love or find love or show love or seek out love. Even if it’s not returned. Trust me, love is always a good thing. Don’t let anger or bitterness or any number of other obstacles close your heart off to love. Edward Hirsch’s thoughts on this in his poem “Heinrich Heine” are perfect:
“There’s always a solution,” he texted me when I was having another bout of anxiety because something else had broken around the house and needed fixing or attention or whatever. Those four simple, wise words had an instant calming affect on me.
Two months ago I had fallen into such a deep depression after the death of my husband that I was afraid I would never pull myself out of it. And I knew I had to pull myself out, that no one could do it for me. I kept thinking about the post-partum depression I suffered after my daughter was born because the symptoms I was experiencing were nearly identical—days of feeling like I was in a fog, no desire or drive to do anything that I enjoyed, a never ending sense of utter sadness that I could never imagine going away. During my experience with the post-partum depression I keep saying that I didn’t feel like myself and I so wanted to fight my way through this fog. Little by little I tried everything I could to break myself out of it. And so I did.
My instinct to fight took over during this most recent episode of anxiety and depression as well. There are a couple of people who have come into my life since this personal tragedy—the person who sent me that text above— and some relationships that have grown stronger because of it as well. At first I thought that fate has a strange way of giving us people we need just at the right time. But then again I am responsible for the deliberate choice of surrounding myself with loving, kind, generous, positive people.
When an unexpected tragedy happens—especially the one that happened to my family—the natural instinct is to feel completely helpless. But in retrospect I see that I did have choices. And I made some crucial ones even in the midst of an ugly, all-consuming depression. I invited my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews to come visit almost every weekend. I asked my parents to go with me to pick up the new puppy I adopted. I accepted a former colleague’s—now a good friend’s—invitation to walk and talk and mourn. And I made a phone call to a contractor to rebuild the massive deck in my backyard.
It’s interesting to discover what different things for each of us become a symbol or an image of hope. A photograph, a painting, a special place, any number of trinkets or objects.
I know this might sound very strange to some, but my new deck has become that symbol of hope for me. Especially in the summer I will spend hours sitting on it, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, reading, feeding the birds, thinking. In recent years this happy place of mine has become worn to the point of being a mess and even unsafe. Within two weeks of Alan being killed I made that phone call to the contractor I mentioned above. At the time it felt impulsive, but in retrospect it was the beginning of creating a space that feels like my own, that I have control over, and that I’ve made a deliberate decision to change and improve. I keep joking that the puppy and the new deck are the two best decisions I’ve made this year, but I do think that this is actually true. A friend on Twitter commented that I’ve created a healing space with the new deck and some other areas of the house I’ve redecorated and rearranged. She couldn’t be more right.
There are still days when I think of how my husband was killed and our shattered family and the effect on our daughter and it feels like I’ve been punched in the chest all over again.
But this morning I was standing in the kitchen baking muffins, with our new puppy sitting at my feet, while my daughter was taking her morning class online, and a friend stopped by for coffee and to pick up some tools. I had a sense of happiness, and contentment, and even joy.
I have pangs of guilt—-which everyone tells me is natural—when I feel happy. Is it wrong for me to carry on with my own life? Is it fair that I get to carry on? But what is the alternative? Should I not do things that make me laugh or smile? Should I stop finding joy and pleasure in the company of the people with whom I’ve surrounded myself? Should I stop finding things, small things, to be grateful for every day?
But if I stopped, then I would give up that fight. And I don’t think that’s even a possibility for me.
As the season changes to autumn and the air is cooler I finally feel like I can breath a bit easier. The fog and sweltering oppression—literally and figuratively—of this summer is lifting. And the colors on the pond in my yard are starting to turn into lovely shades of red and gold. John Clare’s poem “Autumn” that I happened to read this morning captures my feelings very well:
Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun, And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run; Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air; Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.…
When I look out over my yard I see my new deck in progress, I see the talented person crafting this beautiful space for me, I see the colors on the pond, I think about John Clare’s poem. I smile. I feel hope.
Friederike Mayröcker and Ernst Jandl lived together from 1954 until Jandl’s death in 2000. They were lovers, companions, friends and creative partners; as we read Mayröcker’s elegy to Jundl the feeling of being lost and bewildered without him pervades her text. In a partnership that spans more than forty years, it’s fascinating to see what images and thoughts she brings to her poetic reflection on their time together. After spending so much of her life and her passions with him, how could she possibly choose what to write about in order to honor properly their memories?
One of my favorite pieces in the book is a reflection on a poem fragment that Jandl writes that is stuffed, with many other literary fragments, into his desk. In the winter of ’88 the two are painstakingly excavating the contents of his desk and Mayröcker recollects:
Afternoon after afternoon, actually the entire
winter of ’88, we are absorbed in
viewing, approving, conserving what
has been written down. And then, suddenly,
one day I come across four lines
dashed off in pencil:
in the kitchen it is cold winter has an awful hold mother’s left her stove of course and i shiver like a horse.
She goes on to connect the poem to her current state of grief over Jandl’s passing:
The last line, which informs of the most
profound abandonment, aloneness, exclusion
seeking solace in an attempt
to identify with that mute creature—a carriage
horse in winter’s cold depths, standing
in one place for hours, head hanging, in no
one’s care, waiting for a human to get it
going—is so poignant.
And it is the very last line of the poem that haunts Mayröcker:
This line: mother is not at her stove:
conveys the damnable utterly graceless
transience and finiteness of this life, mother
is not at her stove—where did she go.
I’ve read two other books on grief recently: Will Daddario’sTo Grieve and Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers. Of all these, Mayrocker’s text elicited the most emotional response from me. Her multifaceted response to grief in all its forms—emotional, philosophical, social—struck a nerve.
In 2013, Will Daddario experienced the loss of his father, grandmother, friend, and cat all within a span of five months. In early 2014, he and his wife were expecting their first child, a baby boy whom they were going to name Finlay, but their precious gift died during delivery. Daddario writes this short, philosophical, moving chapbook to serve as a chronicle of his grieving process and as a tribute to those he loved and lost. He introduces his writing: “While grieving, I have turned to multiple sources to guidance. What follows here is my own attempt to act as guide for others who encounter such loss, though, truthfully, the primary audience is myself.”
What struck me the most about Daddario’s handling of grief is that he was constantly moving forward in his attempt to deal with his mourning. This was, for him and his wife, a very active handling of several devastating blows, one after the other. Daddario and his wife kept their own notes on mourning and, following the example of Barthes, they wrote reflections on small pieces of paper every day for a year and placed them in a glass jar. On their son’s 2-year birthday they read through their reflections, many of which are copied here for us into his book. On August 7, 2014, for instance, Daddario’s wife wrote:
I continue to feel as though I’ve been shot through with a cannon ball, creating a huge hole in me, and that the cannonball is lodged in my body, weighing me down.
And on July 3, 2014 Daddario himself writes:
A new phase of mourning. Like Barthes says, the “emotivity” starts to subside, but the suffering remains. We are four weeks to the day after Finlay’s arrival/departure. What will the next four bring?
Another activity that Daddario and his wife do on a daily basis is to light a candle in Finlay’s room each night as the sun goes down and dedicate that quiet time of their day to reflection. And each morning they dedicated to “tear time” which allowed them to grieve for another day that would begin without their son. Daddario also uses reading as an activity that becomes a great comfort for him. He has a list of 13 pivotal books that include authors such as Roland Barthes, Anne Carson, Karen Green and the poet Rumi.
One final activity that Daddario actively engages in during his experience with grief is his focus on language and unpacking different words which now had a new meaning for him. He discusses the words solve, resolve, unresolved and buoy and how they all gave him insight into his grieving process. His analysis of the Ancient Greek word therapeuein, which Michel Foucault lectured on, was especially intriguing to me. Foucault says of this word:
Therapeuein means in Greek three things. Therapeuein means, of course, to perform a medical action whose purpose is to cure or to treat. However, therapeuein is also the activity of the servant who obeys and serves his master. Finally, therapeuein is to worship (render un culte). Now, therapeuein heauton means at the same time to give medical care to oneself, to be one’s own servant, and to devote oneself to oneself.
It is this last definition of therapeuein that Daddario truly grasps and practices throughout his grief process. His self-care is active—he writes, reads, cries, discusses, lights candles, and jogs—which all are the best methods for him of being his own servant. The biggest and most important lesson for me in this piece of writing is that in the grieving process we must each find our own soothing activities that bring us the greatest devotion to self-care.
This title is published by Ugly Ducking Presse, which indie press I recently discovered through their collection of poems Written in the Dark which are translated from the Russian. I am so excited to find these brave, small publishers that bring us such profound pieces of literature. What are your favorite small press finds?
My day job is teaching Latin and Ancient Greek at an independent day and boarding school. I enjoy books in various genres, but especially literary fiction, literature in translation, historical fiction, history, short stories and travel writing and poetry.
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Background artwork "Come Back Winter" by Sunandini Banerjee. Used with permission from the artist.